A critical analysis of global sustainability indices
Keeling, Brian Neville
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Nation states of the world are driven by socio-economic imperatives that are rapidly degrading the natural resources that sustain life on Earth. This paradox has led to numerous initiatives to better understand and measure sustainability and sustainable development through indices. The primary objective of this research is to critically analyse the plethora of indices developed and used by institutions and organisations globally that have a role to play in measuring the sustainability and sustainable development of nation states, and distill the analysis into one integrated Sustainable Development Index (SDI) that compares all countries. A secondary objective is to review South Africa‟s response to measure sustainability and determine how well it performs compared to other nation states. A qualitative approach is used to review the literature in three steps, namely to consider the challenges of measuring what matters, to reflect on the response to govern and measure sustainability, and then to identify outcomes in terms of specific indices related to triple bottom line dimensions. The review considers the scope and level of integration of global indices as well as South Africa's response to measure sustainability. The analysis phase normalizes all the data to establish an integrated SDI for all countries, it then analyses and interprets the data to determine the variation and correlation between all the global indices, and then benchmarks countries and specifically South Africa. The review finds that twenty-one years after the Agenda 21 agreement at the Rio Earth Summit, no acceptable or established SDI has been developed and implemented by the United Nations, and the analysis develops two options for an integrated SDI at nation state level. In terms of both these SDI's South Africa performs poorly from a benchmarked perspective. From both the nation state and global indices perspectives, the appraisal of the single integrated SDI finds significant variations in the results, coupled with a wide range of correlation outcomes which distill into well correlated single integrated SDIs. The findings indicate that recent SDI developments are moving towards human well-being indicators, however although environmental priorities are considered, they play a secondary role. This “inconvenient truth” alludes to a “business as usual” approach as the policy makers of the world continue to focus on short-term socio-economic imperatives. Environmental thresholds and “limits to growth” considerations need to be fundamental aspects of all SDIs. This argument continues by factoring thresholds and priorities into the triple bottom line dimensions - a Sustainability Intelligence Quotient is developed from the integrated SDI, which suggests that only two countries meet the requirements.